The tent hospital is standard military issue. The dozen or so patients here in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are anything but. Bearded, they lie shackled to their hospital beds, and watching over them are U.S. Army Military Police. Also watching over them, in a more spiritual sense, is Abuhena Sai-fulislam. Clad in camouflage, the Navy chaplain leans close to one of the prisoner patients. They quietly converse, the chaplain using a mix of rudimentary Arabic and hand gestures. “That’s why I was brought here,” says Saifulislam. “To understand their needs.”
That has been a tall order for Saifulislam, 40, one of only three Muslims among the 874 chaplains in the Navy. Since late January he has been charged with ministering to a flock that would challenge any clergyman: the 300 al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees brought to Camp X-Ray from the battlefields of Afghanistan—plus the nearly 1,700 men and women assigned to guard them. “He has taken what could be an extremely volatile situation,” says Marine Brig. Gen.
Michael Lehnert, the commander of the task force who brought Saifulis- lam aboard, “and lowered the tensions through his work.”
Saifulislam landed at the camp 12 days after Joint Task Force 160 began airlifting the prisoners—reported to be among Afghanistan’s most ruthless anti-U.S. fighters—to Cuba, a time when photos of blindfolded inmates made the military’s treatment of prisoners a hot-button issue. “There was a lot of tension in the beginning,” says Saifulislam, who was summoned after top brass realized they were ill-prepared to understand the religious needs of their Muslim captives, such as prayer schedules, dress codes’ and dietary restrictions. Saifulislam did witness a few minor incidents of prisoners shouting and spitting at guards. But as for criticism that U.S. soldiers callously disregarded the religious needs of detainees, he says flatly, “I have not seen any mistreatment.”
Saifulislam serves as a sort of religious translator, calling detainees to prayer, counseling them and training their guards in cultural sensitivity. In one incident, a guard took a sheet a prisoner had wrapped around his waist to pray—a common Muslim display of modesty. That led more than 150 of the prisoners to launch a hunger strike, but the chaplain was able to intervene, telling General Lehnert, “It’s a small thing. And if there is no security issue, why not?”
Yet Saifulislam emphasizes that his role is not to represent the prisoners. “I am not their spokesperson,” he says. In some cases he has been able to persuade detainees that their interpretation of jihad is not consistent with traditional Islamic teachings. Many more, however, reject his ministering and remain fervently anti-American. But even they receive his counsel. “I’m not a perfect person,” he says, “but I give it my best.”
His capacity to make connections in such extreme conditions comes from a life of crossing cultures. Born near Dhaka in Bangladesh, the fifth of eight children of a businessman and his homemaker wife, young Saifulislam attended a high school run by Catholic missionaries. After college and graduate school in Bangladesh, he went to New Hampshire College in Manchester and got an M.B.A. He joined the Navy in 1992.
While working as a petty officer at the Pentagon the following year, he learned the Navy needed Muslim chaplains. He enrolled part-time in a Leesburg, Va. , theological school. In the meantime, his parents, following Bangladeshi custom, had arranged a 1993 marriage to Kaniz Fatema, now 31, who was studying medicine in Bangladesh. Saifulislam earned his U.S. citizenship in 1995, and in 1997 his wife, by then an internist, joined him in the U.S. He was ordained as an imam—the Muslim equivalent of a minister—in May 1999, soon becoming a Navy chaplain at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.
Though Saifulislam’s wife—back in San Diego with daughter Taharah, 2—worries about him, she takes comfort from his counsel. “In a stressful situation,” she observes, “he says, ‘Have faith in God and be strong. You will overcome it.’ ”
By all accounts, Saifulislam has done just that. “I think he has kept a lot of incidents from happening by being here,” says Army Col. Terry Car-rico, first commander of Camp X-Ray. But even as he plays peacemaker, Saifulislam still struggles with his own anger and disbelief over how the Muslim hijackers could have done what they did in the name of Allah. “When people ask me why and how, my immediate answer is, I don’t know,’ ” he says. “I am still looking for that answer.”
Don Sider in Guantanamo Bay